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Halal cuisine, the fusion of faith and flavor on a plate

Halal cuisine can become a window toward appreciating Muslim culture.

In most Muslim-dominated streets in the Philippines, the word “halal” can be seen printed on big tarpaulins, displayed on neon LED signs, or hung outside restaurant entrances. Moreover, its presence on food blogs and the packaging of various food products has propelled the concept of halal to mainstream consciousness. However, while many misconceive halal as only meals permissible under Islam or mere Arabian dishes, the term encompasses more than these, with our knowledge leaving a lot to be desired.

Beyond the recipes

Norodin Kuit, the halal lead auditor of the Muslim Mindanao Halal Certification Board, Inc., defines halal as a religious term that means “anything permissible in the sight of the Creator.” This implies that the scope of the word’s definition goes beyond food and extends to clothing and people’s relationships with other living things—including flora and fauna.

Kuit clarifies that all animals and plants are Halal unless otherwise stated by the Qur’an—the religious book of Islam—because they “[thrive] naturally within the ambit of Islamic tolerance.” Furthermore, he explains that halal food must be thoyibban, or pure, harmless, and wholesome. “In short, good for the health,” he furthers. Hence, halal food is anything that does not contain any “prohibited meat, additives, [and] enhancers” and is made without “cross-contamination in the kitchen.”

On the other hand, food ceases to be halal when animals are slaughtered in a way that violates Islamic rites. When an animal consumes meat, bones, or blood from non-halal animals—they become al jalalah or impure. For such meat to be permissible for consumption, they must undergo a withdrawal period called al-istibra, where they are provided only their natural diet like grass, legumes, and grains. These rigid rules open up a wholly different world of flavors and ingredient combinations unique to halal cuisine alone.

Taking pride in her restaurant, Alial Kabab Halal Food, Maria Paraon Raza shares that her establishment ensures that each dish is free from any pork products, as consuming pork is forbidden by the Qur’an. In addition, they perform the necessary Islamic rites, with her husband and co-owner “[praying] over the animal that [they] are supposed to cook.”

Finding a common ground

At present, halal food progressively paves its way in catering to non-Muslim Filipinos to become familiar with the traditions of Islam. Over the years, Filipinos have grown familiar with authentic halal cuisine, even adapting dishes to suit the flavors Filipinos are used to. In their efforts to make halal cuisine more acceptable to Filipinos, Raza expounds, “[Especially for our restaurant’s dishes,] we use rice which also makes sense to the Filipino diet.” This rings true for their restaurant’s bestsellers: chicken biryani and mutton biryani.

Middle-Eastern food or Filipino food can both fall under the halal classification. Halal food has no distinct taste regardless of the cuisine, as long as it is not haram or forbidden and abides with the laws of the Qur’an. “Halal-certified food has no discernible taste difference from non-halal dishes,” Kuit clarifies.

With the influx of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from the Middle East, the influence of halal cuisine spread throughout the country. “When OFWs come back to the Philippines, they actually miss it,” Raza traces. “[Kapag] nakakapagluto sila sa family nila, their family gets a taste of food from another country, kaya nagiging familiar na sa taste buds [ang halal cuisine].”

(When they cook for their family, they get a taste of food from another country, that’s why halal cuisine becomes familiar to their taste buds.)

This has prompted the government to cultivate the country’s extensive scope of halal cuisine. The establishment of the Philippine Halal Export Development and Promotion Program ensures that halal products and services in the country are authentic. The inscription of the certification logo from a certifying body guarantees that the ingredient or food is halal. “All known Filipino dishes can be certified halal provided they pass the stringent halal certification process,” Kuit explains. He further clarifies that, “Without [it], the said food [falls under] the category of subhat or mashboo or ‘incomprehensible, suspect, or doubtful.'”

A rocky road still

Even with such safeguards, consumers and producers are met with a bevy of problems that plague most countries like the Philippines, where Muslims are not the majority. For example, halal ingredients are either scarce or non-existent in most rural areas due to their stringent requirements. “When we haven’t started the restaurant yet, ang hirap talaga maghanap ng restaurants that serve authentic [halal] food,” Raza admits. Kuit echoes the sentiment, “Filipino Muslims often encounter [such] difficulties especially when traveling [to] non-Muslim communities or the countryside.”

(It’s hard to find restaurants that serve authentic halal food.)

On top of availability issues, preparing halal food requires sufficient knowledge of Islamic culture and halal food preparation. Raza reveals, “[Halal meat] should be slaughtered by a person who knows the Islamic Law well, who is in [their] right mind, and who prays over the animal to be slaughtered.”

However, such scenarios have since improved. “Halal cuisine in the country is now gaining popularity because of our massive information drive and the government’s effort to [be at] par with other non-Muslim countries with strong support for their halal programs,” Kuit imparts. Such endeavors have resulted in halal food’s popularity and accessibility in most urban areas around the country. Thus, foreign and local entrepreneurs have established halal restaurants, shops, and agribusiness companies. The Department of Tourism even launched Halal Culinary Tourism last July 2021 to attract tourists into trying and appraising Mindanao’s best halal-certified cuisine.

Halal cuisine is an intricate representation of religion and culture. More than just a religious practice, it proves that faith manifests in more ways than one.

Bursting with flavor and flair, halal cuisine stays faithful to the teachings of the Qur’an. Despite the restrictions, halal dishes show people’s inherent ingenuity and resourcefulness. But what brings us together is a hearty and flavorful meal prepared by those who cook from the heart. Ultimately, as Kuit encapsulates, “[Halal food] fosters and promotes economic development, peace, and religious harmony among people of different faiths.”

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